On March 27, 2019 at about 11.10 AM IST a DRDO developed missile directly intercepted and destroyed an Indian satellite in Low Earth Orbit. The target of the test, the Microsat-R satellite, had been launched earlier on the PSLV C44 mission into a 275 km Sun Synchronous Orbit on the 24th of January 2019. The test occurred when the satellite was almost directly over DRDO’S Missile Test Range on Abdul Kalam Island from where the interceptor missile was launched. The test was very carefully planned to minimize the debris and may have required at least a year for execution. With the successful test, India became the fourth country in the world with a demonstrated A-SAT capability.
This development signifies a major shift in India’s approach towards the military uses of space. Though India has had the building blocks of A-SAT technology for quite some time, India’s space efforts were largely focused on civilian uses. This flexing of its space prowess after a prolonged period of ambivalence indicates that India will now use its space capabilities more proactively to protect its interests as an emerging power on the world stage. India seems to have woken up to the fact that the space domain can no longer be ignored in the fighting and deterrence of modern information-based wars. The growing US China rivalry especially in the Indo Pacific region has a significant space component. Space capabilities of these countries are direct contributors to their war fighting strategies and military doctrines. The A-SAT test suggests that India has recognized the spillover effects that this competition would have on the region and is prepared to use its space assets to negate and nullify them.
While the test was an unqualified technical success, does India possess all the capabilities to fight and win or deter a modern information based war using its space capabilities? A critical appraisal reveals many gaps in India’s use of space based assets as a part of its military strategy.
One of the major requirements of an aspiring space power is Space Situational Awareness (SSA). Translated into simple English this means that India should be aware of all the satellites, debris and other objects that are in orbit around the earth. Any action that India needs to take is critically dependent on this knowledge. While India can track satellites that transmit radio signals, its capabilities to track objects that do not radiate signals is limited. For example it appears that India was unaware of the Chinese A-SAT test in 2007 for quite some time after the event. Ground based long-range radars, optical and laser ranging telescopes as well as space based sensors are needed to redress this balance. While some enhancements to SSA capabilities have taken place, India still has a long way to go.
The second major requirement for an aspiring space power is C4ISR assets in space. C4ISR stands for Command, Control, Communi cations, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. This term refers to the satellite based networked constellation of Electronic Intelligence (ELINT), optical and radar satellites that are linked with different Communications satellites to provide real time information to military units across a large geographic space. China has about 35 to 40 working Yaogan Reconnaissance satellites linked to a large number of Telecom and Data relay satellites in Geostationary Orbit that provide it with this capability. The US too has several dedicated networks that provide it with real time information over any geographic space. Though India has very successful civilian remote sensing and satellite communications programmes it lacks the capacities to build and launch a large number of C4ISR satellites. It also does not have an ELINT capability that is needed to cue other remote sensing satellites for tracking a moving target on the high seas.
In addition to SSA and C4ISR assets India also requires a number of other types of satellites. Navigation services, weather services as well as data relay services are all needed. Though capacities and capabilities exist they need to be augmented significantly to meet the expectations and needs of a modern space based military force. These requirements would need an approximately ten fold increase in satellite and launch vehicle building capacities. The support infrastructure and industrial capacities would also need to increase correspondingly. The creation of an Indian space industry that can build satellites, launchers and provide other products and services would also need significant augmentation. Technological changes have fundamentally altered the nature and character of modern war. The advent of nuclear weapons linked nuclear and conventional war. After the launch of Sputnik space also became linked to nuclear and conventional war. The nuclear, space, conventional and cyber domains of war are now inextricably linked with each other. Information is the glue that binds them together with space based information playing a critical role. These developments pose new challenges in the way military forces have to be organized, trained and deployed.
The US has been a pioneer in such organizational and institution building. Its current plan to set up a Space Force shows US determination to retain its dominant position in the world power order. China has recently re-organized its military into theatre commands who exercise control over the traditional services in their respective theatres. The elevation of the Rocket Forces into a separate service emphasizes the role of missile precision strike in its Anti Access Area Denial Strategy. The creation of a Strategic Support Force (SSF) to deal with space, cyber and electronic warfare that cuts across all theatres reinforces the role of information especially space based information in the fighting and winning of modern wars. This restructuring of their military forces has gone hand in hand with significant increases in technological and industrial capabilities and capacities. With 849 and 284 working satellites (a large number of which are military satellites) as of the end of 2018, the US and China are well placed to deal with the challenges posed by the emerging world order.
Whilst India can bridge the gaps in technologies, products and capacities with some effort, the more challenging aspect to deal with, is the re-organization of the armed forces to fight and win or deter an information based war. Individual silos like the Army, Navy or Air Force have to be combined together into a flexible joint force that can be suitably configured to deal with any situation. These organizational and institutional bottlenecks more than any technological or capacity gap is possibly the biggest challenge confronting the country. The acceptance of the fact within military and political circles that the nature of war has changed and that we need to change as well is critical for achieving such a transformation.
Will the successful A-SAT test lead to such an outcome? Can India emulate the US and China by integrating its space and other military capabilities into a modern force that can fight and win an information-based war in its region. This more than any technological achievement such as an A-SAT or BMD test will determine whether Indian aspirations to become a major power on the world stage will become a reality.
(S.Chandrashekar, Rajaram Nagappa & N. Ramani are faculty at the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru)